Due to Buddhist teachings on nonviolence and compassion, people often assume that Buddhists are vegetarians. Indeed, many Tricycle readers cried foul after we ran a recipe in the Winter 2010 issue that listed chicken as an ingredient. One letter to the editor said, “I feel this [recipe] is as disturbing in your magazine as it would be if it had been published in Vegetarian Times. Please no more chicken recipes.” We printed a short response saying that while we respect vegetarianism, the fact is that many Buddhists eat meat. (Note: personally when I say I “respect” vegetarianism, I mean it in the “hold in high esteem” sense of the word, not like “I respect your right to eat whatever you like.” Also, a fun fact: when it comes to dietary restrictions the Tricycle staff is a motley crew.) 

Of course, the fact that many Buddhists choose to eat meat does not mean that it is an enlightened thing to do. We are killing sentient beings for food, after all. In a previous blog post (“The Meat Question“) I tried to create a space for people to talk about the issue of meat eating without losing their heads (it didn’t work: one of the first commenters wrote “Is there an ethical way to rape a woman? How about an ethical way to murder a child?”… not exactly an inviting way to start a dialogue).  

In an effort to continue exploring this important question, let’s take a look at an excerpt I came across recently in Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat, an impassioned Buddhist critique of eating meat from the famed Tibetan wanderer and pilgrim, Shabkar (1781-1851). The following comes from the second text in Food of Bodhisattvas, entitled The Nectar of Immortality. In it he raises two compelling questions: 1) If every sentient has been our mother, how can we eat their flesh? and 2) How can bodhichitta [the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings] be developed if we are craving meat?

It is said that if we eat evil food, if we consume the flesh and blood of beings who were once our mother or our father, we will, in a future life, take birth in the hell of Screaming, which, of the eighteen, is one of the hot hells. To the extent that we once consumed their flesh, so now red-hot clubs of iron will be forced into our mouths, burning our vital organs and emerging from our lower parts. We will have the experience of endless pain. And even when we are born again in this world, for five hundred lives we will take birth in monstrous and devouring forms.

We will become demons, ogres, and executioners. It is said too that we will be born countless times among the outcasts, as butchers, fisherman, and dyers, or as carnivorous beasts thirsting for blood: lions, tigers, leopards, bears, venomous snakes, wolves, foxes, cats, eagles, and hawks. It is clear therefore that, for the gaining of high rebirth in divine or human form, and thus from progress on the path to freedom, the eating of meat constitutes a major obstacle. 

Most especially, we have been taught that the primordial wisdom of omniscience arises from bodhichitta. Bodhichitta in turn arises from the roots of compassion and is the final consummation of the skillful means of the six paramitas. It is stated in the tantra The Perfect Enlightenment of Bhagavan Vairochana: “The primordial wisdom of omniscience arises from bodhichitta, which arises from the roots of compassion and is the fulfillment of the entire scope of skillful means.”

It is therefore said that one of the greatest obstacles to the birth of bodhichitta in our minds is our craving for meat. For if great compassion has not arisen in our minds, the foundation of bodhichitta is not firm. And if bodhichitta is not firm, we may well claim a hundred times that we are of the Mahayana, but the truth is that we are not; we are not Bodhisattvas of the great vehicle.

From this it should be understood that the inability to eliminate the desire for meat is an impediment to the attainment of omniscience. For this reason, all those who practice the Dharma—and indeed everyone—should strive, to the best of their ability, to forsake this evil food, the flesh of their parents.
Whether or not you agree with him, Shabkar is an impressive figure. He’s all the more impressive when you consider how difficult it would have been to be a vegetarian in Tibet more than 150 years ago.

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